The sacred science of yoga is intended to bring an individual into blissful union with their Supreme Self. This is the state in which one has realised their divine and immortal nature, having had attained the highest level of knowledge, discipline and perfection. As a result, the yogi forevermore enjoys complete freedom from suffering caused by ignorance, and sees all beings as manifestations of God.
To some, the expression ‘sacred science’ may seem somewhat paradoxical. The terms ‘God’ and sacred tend to conjure up an association with religion, which, if brought into the context of yoga, may produce some negative reactions towards the practice. On the other hand, using the term ‘science’ in conjunction with yoga can evoke a cold, clinical impression that is equally uninviting. Undeniably, however, there are elements of both religion and science in yoga that are attributable to its effectiveness.
As with all religions, yoga employs a system of beliefs and observances in order to effect the appropriate moral conduct from its community of followers. Just as Christianity has the Bible and the Muslims have the Quran, there exist a number of yogic sacred scriptures produced by enlightened beings that reveal the fundamental beliefs and philosophies. They prescribe a code of ethical behavior as well as descriptions of rituals to be performed in a certain manner, which serve to fuel devotion through regular disciplined practice. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Maharshi is a concrete example of one such authoritative guide.
A modern definition of science has been given as “‘the way through which knowledge is pursued, not just the knowledge itself'” [Ref. 2]. A more precise description of science is “a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws” [Ref. 3]. Hence, if one equates the verses and their sequential order of Patanjali Maharshi’s text to this systematic arrangement of truths, and his explanations of how certain behaviors and thought patterns impact our destinies and those of other beings, there are some definite parallels that can be drawn between religion and science and yoga. Clearly, the intention and method for deepening one’s knowledge is a common goal amongst all three disciplines. One needs only to study their holy scriptures and other closely related sacred texts produced by the great sages and philosophers to find evidence of this. For instance, Swami Sivananda authored numerous volumes on the subject of yoga, among which included the work entitled “Raja Yoga”. It is of particular interest to the global yoga community, as it examines the path of Raja Yoga through the context of the Yoga Sutras. Coincidentally, this is the branch that is known as the king of all yogas, as it primarily concerns the mind, thus giving more justification for the use of the expression, ‘sacred science of yoga’. Patanjali Maharshi’s ancient text, supplemented by Swami Sivananda’s commentary, represents an exceptionally thorough source of knowledge for devoted yoga practitioners. Together, they provide spiritual aspirants a systematic and intellectual approach to reach the highest realms of yoga, that which is denoted by Samadhi.
All the Western Sadhakas take to the practice of Raja Yoga. In Europe and America, hundreds of men and women Sadhakas owe their progress in the practice of Raja Yoga to the practical and efficient guidance of Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. Sri Swamiji’s approach is direct, clear and positive, [Ref. 1, publisher’s introductory note, p. 7]
As suggested by the meaning of the term ‘sutra’ (thread), Patanjali Maharshi’s insights are presented as a prolific stream of reflections. To me, the experience of reading through the sutras felt much like listening to the guru giving a lecture to his students, which at times, is interrupted by a question and answer exchange…only the questions are never actually heard. Consequently, there are points in the text where there are some discontinuities in the flow of thoughts, as another subject is addressed or the topic at hand is expanded upon. Furthermore, the sutras themselves tend to be quite short and lacking in detail. Had it not been for the book entitled ‘Raja Yoga’, I likely would have not gained the full benefit of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Every verse of the sacred scripture was accompanied by a thorough interpretation of the thread, which often included relevant supporting information and examples to illustrate difficult concepts. I also appreciated his explanations on what effects could manifest in one’s practice as a result of exercising or shunning the guidance provided in any given sutra. His approach of providing an extensive knowledge base and presenting different perspectives on the topics greatly helped to me grasp a better understanding of Raja Yoga. As a result, I now have a better sense of where to direct my focus in my own yoga practice, and where the pitfalls may potentially be encountered.
The text, ‘Raja Yoga’ is aimed at those who are seeking ultimate fulfillment of their innate potential, which comes about when they realise the union with their Supreme Souls. In this state, the yogi becomes an embodiment of God (Brahman); they become omniscient, omnipotent and eternally blissful. This complete absence of concern and freedom from suffering arises from the knowledge of the cause of suffering, which is ignorance. By understanding the root cause, it becomes possible to determine the potential effects that entrap us in a never-ending cycle of ignorant behavior, which inevitably creates more pain and anguish. Our failure to see past the finite, physical layer of our beings and our tendency to cling to the material universe – whether it is in the form of possessions, other beings, activities, etc. – is what binds us to the physical world. These attachments are spawned by desires, which produce a restless mind, which in turn leads to incessant activity. This produces more desires and consequently more potential for suffering. Thus, the loop begins once again. Only once we can recognize and accept that the true Self is actionless and completely indifferent to sense-objects and material desires, are we able to escape the wheel of life and death. Until such a time, we must continue to perfect our life experience and increase our self-knowledge, each time we are re-born, so that we may eventually see an end to our suffering. The only desire that truly counts is to be one with God, for God is present in all things and all beings.
It is the path of Raja Yoga, which constitute the uppermost three limbs of yoga that will bring us liberation from our ignorance, for it teaches us how to discipline the mind. Through constant practice of the concentration and meditation techniques of Raja Yoga, we learn to control the thought waves that translate to desires, which can eventually lead to attachments. Through observing Vairagya (non-attachment), we develop resilience towards cravings for sense-objects, for we understand that true bliss cannot be found in the sensual desires of the physical world. We learn to quell negative thought fluctuations which could give rise to evil words and actions by replacing them with positive and loving intentions, which are fortunately much stronger. By establishing a strong character through observance of Yama and Niyama, radiant health through the practice of asana, a calm and undistracted mind attained from consistent Pranayama practice, and the ability to withdraw from the senses through control of the Indriyas, we create a strong foundation for our Raja Yoga practice. Eventually, through the regular practice of Samyana (which refers to the combined and simultaneous practice of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi), we acquire the power to discern between reality and illusion, which ultimately brings us deliverance from pain and suffering:
These three practices purify the mind. They constitute the very basis of Yoga. With the help of these three, the Yogi dives deep within and brings out the pearl of knowledge of anything. [Ref. 1, Ch. XI, verse III-4, p. 139]
Hence, the way of Raja Yoga is undeniably long and difficult; however, the rewards are boundless and beyond imagination. Thankfully, we have the life works of Jivanmuktas such as Patanjali Maharshi and Swami Sivananda to provide us the guidance to meet with success…
Why is your mind wandering in various directions with anxieties, O peaceless man? Is there no one to guide you, who, catching hold of your hands steadfastly, can cause true knowledge to dawn in you by explaining creation, destruction, etc.?
Get yourself free from the Samsara (wheel of birth and death) by taking shelter at the Lotus Feet of your Guru; and realise the Self in your heart by controlling the senses and the mind. [Ref. 1, “Instructions of Sankara”, p. 8]
- Swami Sivananda, Raja Yoga, Himalayas, India: The Divine Life Society, 1999.
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